Instant observations from Day 6 of Patriots training camp

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Jonnu Smith went up to snag a toe-tapping grab along the sideline to help out Cam Newton. The New England Patriots quarterback had a pretty sharp practice, but this wasn’t one of his best throws, too high and too far outside. It didn’t matter. Smith turned a bad moment into a brilliant one, and caught it for a 15-yard pickup and a big play during 11-on-11 drills.

Was it a precursor of what’s to come in 2021 for Newton, a quarterback who so badly looked like he needed help in 2020? After all, Smith was one of Bill Belichick’s big-budget signings at the skill positions, where New England sorely needed help last year. And it was promising to see Smith and receiver Nelson Agholor have strong practices in the first day with pads on Tuesday.

The contact practice, however, served as a forceful reminder that Mac Jones is still an inexperienced rookie. Maybe that will change in the coming weeks. On Tuesday, however, Jones struggled with coverages, often missing linebackers dropping into a zone. He threw at least two interceptions during competitive drills, and linebacker Anfernee Jennings dropped another.

It’s one thing to excel in shorts and shells during the early days of training camp. It’s another thing entirely to excel against pass-rush pressure, press coverage and thud-level tackling. So it’s as Belichick says: “He has a long way to go.”

Attendance

ABSENTEES QB Jarrett Stidham CB Stephon Gilmore TE Dalton Keene LB Chase Winovich LB Cameron McGrone LB Terez Hall S Joshuah Bledsoe C/G Ted Karras TE Devin Asiasi DL Henry Anderson DT Byron Cowart LIMITED LB Kyle Van Noy was wearing a red jersey. LB Raekwon McMillan left practice to see trainers after getting hurt during a field goal drill. DT Christian Barmore also exited practice early after suffering an apparent left foot injury.

The little details

The weather: It started cool and low-70s and warmed up in to the high 70s. The sun was relatively strong through the overcast sky. The pad level: It was the first padded practice. Players wore pants and shoulder pads. The QB order in drills: Newton and Jones worked together with starters. Newton led drills. Brian Hoyer worked with the scout team. Jake Dolega mostly watched competitive drills. The competitive level: It wasn't feisty. But it seemed players were into practice, with some excitement building about contact. Newton, in particular, brought a lot of energy, at one point staging a cheering competition between different sections of the crowd. The best throw: Newton dropped a 50-yard dime into the end zone for Agholor, who hauled in the ball over safety Kyle Dugger for a touchdown.

The biggest winner and loser

WINNERS: Linebacker Matthew Judon looked great in a run-heavy practice. He managed two run stuffs in 11-on-11 drills, which included the loudest hit by a defender. (There was an even louder hit by an offensive player. More on that play later.) Judon is as an above-average pass-rusher but a truly exceptional player in the run game. That showed up on Tuesday. Agholor had a reception which was among his longest of training camp: that 50-yard bomb from Newton during an 11-on-11 drills. Agholor also had a fair amount of success in 1-on-1 drills. LOSER: We touched on Jones' issues, so let's not bury him here. (Though, I will get back to talking about him later.) Let's, instead, talk about cornerback Joejuan Williams, who seemed to have issues in 1-on-1 coverage, with two losing reps against N'Keal Harry and Nelson Agholor. Neither was particularly close, with Harry shaking Williams on a deep flag and Agholor absolutely roasting the cornerback on an out route. Later in practice, Williams seemed to lose focus, expecting a run play but it was a pass -- so the cornerback gave Harry a free release.

QB stats

Here is the -- without context -- report on stats from Tuesday:

  • Newton: 11 for 17 (5-for-7 in 11-on-11s)

  • Jones: 9 for 14 (1-for-6 in 11s)

The top takeaway: This is the regression I expected for Mac Jones

Jones struggled like this in his early practices with the Patriots. He was most comfortable checking down. He had trouble seeing the coverage. And even on throws that had been his bread-and-butter, he couldn't quite connect. This happens to rookies. They get comfortable in the offense in a teaching environment with no contact. When the defense is allowed to pressure the quarterback and press the receivers, the offense loses its advantage. I expected Jones would take a step back -- and Newton would take a step forward -- when the pads came on. So here's the question: How quickly can Jones get to the point where he's pushing Newton again, now that there's contact at practice?

Everything else that's important

  • Mills was the first man on the field for practice. He headed straight for the stationary bike.

  • Jones was practically the 10th man on the field. What the heck is that? Is HiS EfFoRt SlIpPiNg?

  • Punt return reps went to Gunner Olszewski, Jakobi Meyers and J.J. Taylor.

  • Even on the first day of pads, Hoyer had a pair of miscommunications on back to back plays. First Tre Nixon broke in when he was supposed to break out. The ball fell in complete. Then Marvin Hall broke out when he was likely supposed to stop. That's the difficultly of getting slotted with non-starters.

  • Tight end Devin Asiasi (COVID-19/reserve list) was spotted at the facility on Tuesday.

  • Safety Adrian Colbert dropped four balls in a row during a drill which was intended to get his hands warmed up.

  • During 4-on-4 blocking drills, defensive end Ronnie Perkins put in a good speed rep to beat Matt LaCosse to the quarterback. Agholor may not have held his blocks all that long, but he wasn't lacking in effort. Isaiah Zuber toasted D'Angelo Ross for a jump ball. There was a very high contact rep between tight end Hunter Henry and Judon.

  • Bill Belichick pulled Harry aside for some hands-on coaching. It looked like the WR had a fundamentals breakdown in a catching drill. On the following rep, he ran the drill with receivers coach Troy Brown, and Harry high pointed the ball nicely. He also had a sensational back-shoulder catch in competitive 1-on-1s against Jonathan Jones.

  • William Sherman ran a lap. Barmore also had to run one. It's unclear what they did wrong. It was a rough day for the rookies.

  • During a round of 11-on-11s with Jones at QB, Ja'Whaun Bentley and Judon did a nice job getting into the backfield.

  • Rhamondre Stevenson absolutely trucked slot cornerback Myles Bryant. It's not exactly fair for the defense in these practices, with them unable to wrap up. But that hit was LOUD, the loudest pop of practice.

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